The Beginning of the End
Numbers was putting on an Academy Award–winning performance, taking Jake through every emotion he could possibly think of: scared, confused, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, and victimized. Keyser Söze would have appreciated the level of game Numbers was laying down.
Eleven hours had passed since he’d been taken into custody, six of them under tough interrogation. Although the agents didn’t know any more now than they did when they picked him up, Numbers knew that he was far from out of the fire. Crispy Carl had once told him, “When you stand in the flames, never let them see you sweat.” And Numbers maintained his composure.
The holding room was painted a dull mint green. It was cruel and unusual punishment just to have to look at it for too long. The only furnishings were four metal chairs and a rectangular table. A DEA agent sat on one side of the table with two empty chairs beside him, while Numbers sat on the opposite side. The fluorescent lights overhead seemed to beam only on him. Directly ahead of Numbers was a mirror five feet wide by three feet high. It was obvious that there were agents on the other side listening and watching everything that was said or done in the room. Every so often the agent who was with Numbers would turn around and act as if he was looking at himself, asking the same question again and again. This was his way of letting his superiors know he was getting nowhere fast.
“So where are the drugs and money?” Agent Smith asked for what seemed like the thousandth time. Smith had been at the agency for only a couple of years, but his supervisor liked to use him when they interrogated black suspects. They believed another black male could lure the black perps into a false sense of security and thus trick them into incriminating themselves.
Agent Smith fancied himself a good dresser. Today he was wearing a charcoal-gray suit with a light gray shirt and solid black tie. His top lip sported a well-trimmed pencil-thin mustache. “Don’t make it worse for yourself than it already is,” he said, as if he really cared. “If you play ball, we can knock some time off your sentence.”
Numbers thought it was funny how the agent spoke to him as if they could have been friends under different circumstances. But if he thinks that I’m gonna sit here and implicate myself, this nigger must be the one smoking hot monkey ass through a stem. “I don’t know how many ways I can tell you this, man, but I ain’t done nothing. Y’all the ones that hauled me up in here, got me missing in action, my mom’s probably worried sick. You tell me what’s really good,” Numbers challenged.
“Numbers,” Agent Smith called him by his nickname, hoping to get some type of reaction, “cut the crap. Yeah, we know what they call you in the streets; don’t play dumb with us. We got you on tape with Coney setting up the whole drug transaction. Just tell us where the drugs are, and we’ll make this a little easier on you.” Agent Smith stood up and adjusted his shirt in his pants before walking around to the right side of the table and sitting on its edge. “Little brotha, you think I want to lock you up for the rest of your life? Nah, brotha, that’s not what I want at all, but if you want me to be able to help you, you got to give me something to work with.” This time he spoke in a hushed tone as if the conversation was just between him and Numbers.
Numbers looked straight ahead, his eyes defiant, at the two-way glass in front of him. He spoke, unfazed: “Drugs is not my thing, man! I say no to drugs like Nancy Reagan asked me to back in the day!”
“So you want to be a hard-ass?” Agent Smith hopped off the table. “We can be hard-asses too, you know.” Right on cue Agent Smith’s partner and two other suits Numbers recognized entered the room.
“Dupree Reginald Wallace, I am Agent Flask.” Agent Flask was a tall, well-conditioned, clean-cut white dude, and he spoke with the arrogance of a man who knew something that he shouldn’t. He didn’t bother to introduce the two other suits. Just as well; they needed no introduction. Numbers knew these crooked cops, O’Doul and Lockhart, all too well from the projects. “You’re in more trouble than you realize, kid.” The two detectives smiled, looking sinister. “It would behoove you to cooperate with us. Do you know this person?” Agent Flask cracked a bedeviling smile when he tossed a picture of Coney on the table.
“What kind of rhetorical bullshit is this? You know I do. You just picked me up with him twelve hours ago.”
“Then you should know he already gave you up. He told us about your whole operation. We’ve already cut a deal with him, but we may be able to help you help yourself if you give us your plug,” Agent Flask said.
Numbers wasn’t surprised that Coney had given him up, but that didn’t mean that he was going out like a scrub. He kept his mouth shut.
“Okay,” Flask said, “how about this guy?” He dropped a picture of Sanchez on the table. Sanchez was once Coney’s drugs connect and was now one of the people who supplied Numbers. The agent held several other photos in his hand, waiting for Numbers’s reply.
The stakes had just gone up, and the seat was getting hotter. Numbers had no idea whether or not they had pictures of him and Sanchez together. His next words could implicate him, but if Numbers was nothing else, he was a gambling man. “He looks sort of familiar, but the face doesn’t ring a bell,” Numbers said with an expression as serious as a death sentence. “Isn’t he one of the original members of Menudo?”
Agent Flask frowned. He didn’t think Numbers was funny, and he didn’t like it when perps tried to play him. “Okay then, Mr. Funny Man, who is this . . . and this . . . and this . . . and this?” The agent tossed photo after photo on the steel table. Numbers took a few moments to look at them. It was like seeing a flashback of his entire life since becoming a street hustler, in colored glossy prints. The feds had provided a snapshot of almost everyone Numbers had dealt with in the underbelly of the street game, but what they were unable to do was provide any connection between them and Numbers. He was not in any of the photos, but somehow they knew he knew them—they just couldn’t prove it, so Numbers believed. Why else would they still be digging?
“Come on, this is too much—all the games! I’m not that good at Pictionary, but I’m pretty good with music. Can we play Name That Tune next?” Numbers leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms, not showing his frustration, but he was getting vexed with the interrogation. He knew he could ask for his attorney at any time and put an end to the questioning, but he also knew they’d probably try to lose him in the system for who knows how long if he did.
“We’ve got all the time in the world,” Agent Flask said, his square, chiseled face showing little reaction. He left the pictures spread out on the table and walked out of the interrogation room followed by the well-dressed agent. Detective Lockhart walked over calmly with a smirk on his face and abruptly slammed both of his fat hands down on the table, but Numbers did not react. O’Doul kicked one of the chairs toward Numbers, causing it to fall at his feet, and still Numbers did not flinch. O’Doul followed Lockhart out of the room, leaving Numbers alone with his thoughts.
Numbers began to reminisce about his childhood, recalling the many lessons his mentor, Crispy Carl, had taught him. One of the defining moments, a moment that shined like a beacon in his mind, was during one of the last times he’d seen Crispy Carl.
Numbers went to visit Carl at his one-bedroom hovel in 60 Carlton, right behind the building where he lived. Old Crispy Carl wasn’t doing too well. He was very sick, with no money, no health benefits, and no family to take care of him. Except for Numbers’s occasional visits, he was on his own in every sense of the word. But Crispy Carl never complained about his circumstances because he said his fate was his own doing. Although he never let on, he did look forward to the visits from Numbers; he loved the boy like a son.
“Who’s that?” Crispy Carl called from his bed, alarm in his ailing voice.
“Who else did you give a key, old pimp?” Numbers strode through the door.
“That’s you, Numbers? Where you been?”
“Getting my hustle on, of course. Somebody gotta feed your decrepit ass,” he joked.
Crispy Carl wasn’t offended by the remark—only a foolish man got upset by the truth. “You seen any of my hoes out there, Numbers?”
“They my hoes now, so stop sweating my bitches.”
“Young pimpin’, I taught you everything you know.” Crispy Carl laughed himself into an uncontrollable coughing fit.
Numbers ran to the kitchen, got Carl a drink of water, and then helped him sit up to take a drink.
“Hey, young pimp, it’s okay. We all gotta leave the game one way or another. But let me tell you this so you don’t make the same mistake I made. When you leave the game, you want to roll out with C-Lo as your last number, you dig. See, if you go out with four-five-six, you can make the bank whatever you want it to be when you leave,” making reference to the popular gambling game where three dice are used. “That’s called having an exit plan. Crackers know how the game is played. They got 401(k) plans, pensions, and IRAs.”
Crispy Carl paused to make sure Numbers understood what he was talking about and to gather his breath. “In the streets we ain’t got none of that shit. Shit like that is foreign to cats like us that’s hustling on the street every day. Still, that don’t mean we can’t set ourself up to live comfortable when it’s time to put our cards down. You got to be smarter than the rest of these chumps out here. They think that quick money is gonna last forever, and ain’t nothing lasting forever, feel me?” Crispy Carl sat up in his bed a little more. “See, the problem is these fools start believing their own hype like their shit don’t stink. I’m guilty of that shit myself, young player, so believe me when I tell you, you got to get out when the time is right.”
Numbers thought about what his mentor was saying. “How will I know when it’s that time? I’ve been hustling as long as you’ve known me, Crispy Carl.”
“You’ll know when to get out the game, but you have to start planning for your exit not now . . . but right now! You come a long way from the little runt I met at the number spot way back when. I’m proud of you for always being the man of your house.”